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At the beginning of August I headed down to the Tate Britain in London to see the British Folk Art exhibition. Although my work is not particularly influenced by the folk art style, I was interested to see examples of British work which might otherwise be termed ‘ethnographic art’. In her foreword to the catalogue, Tate curator Penelope Curtis discussed the upsurge in interest in folk arts, referencing the recent Hayward Gallery show, ‘Alternative Guide to the Universe‘ and ‘The Encyclopaedic Palace‘ at the Venice Biennale, as well as artists working in the museum format, such as the ‘Museum of Everything’ and the ‘Museum of Innocence’. (Tate, 2014, p6)

British Folk Art
The British Folk Art exhibition and subsequent catalogue were borne of a collaboration between curators Martin Myrone and Ruth Kenny, and Jeff McMillian, an artist specialising in American folk and outsider art. As Curtis stated, the exhibition aimed to challenge perceptions of folk art as “the work of an unknown amateur artist”, by revealing the stories of its makers and the contexts in which the works were created.

Through categorising the works into genres, such as place and function, Curtis also suggested that the exhibition enabled the viewer “to think about folk art within categories that are usually reserved for fine art – notably figuration and abstraction” (Curtis, 2014, pp. 6-7). Although the bricolage nature of the exhibition layout somewhat belied these claims, I nevertheless enjoyed the installation effect of the grouped objects within the space.

The House that Jack Built
The exhibition catalogue also included essays by the three curators, the first of which was entitled ‘The House that Jack Built: Essay as Sampler’ by Jeff McMillan. Here he discussed attempts by the curators to define British folk art within the limitations of a single survey exhibition. Drawing on contemporary interests in the genre, such as Tracey Emin’s quilts, Grayson Perry’s pots, and Bob and Roberta Smith’s signs, McMillan described how they aimed to trace traditional approaches to art making between the 17th and mid-20th centuries. He also distinguished the tradition of folk art from its closest companion, outsider art, which he described as generally denoting “a self taught artist working in a particularly idiosyncratic, highly individual manner, often driven by compulsion, desire or religious fervour” (McMillan, 2014, p12).

However, without a concrete definition of folk art per se, they decided instead to “approach the exhibition as a preposition… select[ing] works that inherently reflected certain territories and themes, such as the town, the sea, and the countryside, or alternatively, formal considerations like the figurative vs the abstract or non-representational”. Additionally, film and photographic archival works were included, showing the works of art in context, as well as acting as replacements for ephemeral objects which were no longer available.

Wallflowers at the dance of western civilization
Ruth Kenny further interrogated the discrepancies between folk and outsider art in her catalogue essay, ‘Wallflowers at the Dance of Western Civilization: the Limits of Folk Art’, the title based on a quote from Jane Kallir. Speaking about how folk art has come to encapsulate all art forms outside the canon, she outlined how formal similarities between the works have led to folk art becoming such a broad category, often “shaped by the use of found materials, varying levels of technical skill and idiosyncratic construction” (Kenny, p126, 2014).

However, given that similarities of form can often be misleading, she decided instead to focus on the contexts of production, using the American sociologist, Gary Alan Fine’s concept of ‘identity art’ as a way of delineating the boundaries between folk and outsider art. Unlike folk or ‘mainstream’ art, outsider art is not classified according to movements or time periods. It is generally valued as the unique vision of its creators, and one that “defies the influence of pre-existing models, refusing to copy or be in any way derivative”. As Kenny stated: “Outsider art does not seek an audience… in fact, a degree of alienation appears to be essential to its production”. Conversely, folk art can be seen to operate as part of a social system, often being produced by or for a group. Rooted in tradition, “folk art is characterized by borrowing and the reiteration of forms that are passed down from generation to generation”. Despite this tradition, however, folk artists have often subverted these forms to their own signature styles. (Kenny, 127-131, 2014)

Re-instituting British Folk Art
Martin Myrone’s essay considered the legacy of the exhibition and if/how institutions such as the Tate could engage with the history of folk art, given that “folk art was among the categories traditionally considered beyond the remit of the Tate gallery that were brought into reconsideration in planning the new Tate gallery of British Art at the end of the 1990s”. Since that time, workshops and temporary exhibitions on folk art in the museum have been organised, which built on previous enterprises by artists and individuals dedicated to preserving the history of folk art. These included the Museum of ‘Bygones’, Kirkgate at York Castle Museum, and most recently the Folk Archive by Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane.

Although displayed under the collective rubric ‘British Folk Art’, the curators were keen to avoid any interpretations which implied a ‘native’ culture or ‘ethnic’ identity. The ‘British’ in the title instead referred to the geographical boundaries from which the objects were collected and associated. Equally, they were less concerned with historically accurate representations of social practices, preferring instead to consider how these forms had been transformed and mutated through the process of classification and value exchange. (Myrone, 2014, p136-139)

The Exhibitionary Complex
The changes (and instabilities) in museum culture have allowed for more decentred and discursive exhibitions to come to the fore. Myrone quoted sociologist Tony Bennett and his discussions on the ‘exhibitionary complex’ where he noted that the recent occurrence in “the production of decentred displays in which objects and texts… are assembled so as to speak to one another, and to the spectator, in ways that allow a range of inferences to be drawn. [This] questions the virtue and validity of the traditional ethnographic practices of observation and description by denying the availability of a position of discursive neutrality on which such practices depended; it stresses flux, fluidity and indeterminacy.” (Myrone, 2014, p139)

Such interests, which include artists revisiting early collection apparatus including the Kunstkammer and Wunderkammer, are symptomatic of a less disciplinary way of thinking, and thus not only allow for a re-engagement with artworks outside the canon, but also, conversely, for art history to be considered as part of a social system, using these same methods.

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